If you're an American thinking of heading to the Caribbean next winter, keep in mind that under the new Homeland Security regulations you'll need a passport to re-enter the US on your return. Starting December 31 of this year, all travelers entering the US by air or sea from the Caribbean, Bermuda, Central America, and South America will need to show a passport. Likewise, a passport will be needed to enter the country from Canada and Mexico starting December 31 of 2006.
Other recent passport legislation includes the addition of a $12 surcharge on new applications and renewals. The surcharge will finance the department's high-tech upgrade of passports to include computer chips containing a scannable copy of the data page and photo.
The Department of State planned to introduce these new passports in late 2005 but that date has been pushed back due to continued research on the security of the proposed design.
The government had long maintained that the passport chips to be used could be read from only 10 cm away. But at least one test showed that a reader could read a passport chip from 30 feet away.
Because the government had decided not to encrypt data contained on passport chips, the chips exposed passport holders to privacy risks, such as skimming and eavesdropping.
Skimming occurs when an intruder with a reading device in the vicinity of the passport holder surreptitiously reads the electronic information on the chip without the passport holder knowing. Eavesdropping occurs when an intruder intercepts data as it's being transmitted from the chip to an authorized reader.
If you are applying for a passport or renewing your current one, be sure to use the most current forms, available on the department's website.
Sources: Wired, Fodor's